Washington – In a bipartisan vote Thursday, the U.S. House approved a criminal justice reform bill and sent it to the White House, where President Donald Trump has said he would eagerly sign it.
“We’re all better off when former inmates can receive and re-enter society as law-abiding, productive citizens,” Trump said in remarks endorsing the bill last month.
Approved on a 358-36 vote in the U.S. House, the legislation reflects a change of direction for the GOP, which has favored a tough law-and order approach to criminal justice over policies that emphasize rehabilitation.
The First Step Act adopts some of the steps outgoing Gov. Dannel Malloy has pushed through the Connecticut legislature, including expanding credit for good behavior that allows prisoners to shave time off their sentences, reducing penalties for drug possession, and making it easier for those convicted of non-violent crimes to be granted parole.
While Malloy’s criminal justice reforms impact those in state prisons, the First Step Act affects only federal prisoners, who make up less than 10 percent of the country’s prison population.
The bill was passed overwhelmingly in the Senate on Tuesday.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a former federal prosecutor, lauded the legislation, calling it “a first step towards a more humane and fair criminal justice system.”
“Most of my career has been devoted to pursuing cases against people who break the law,” he said. “I know that justice involves both punishment and rehabilitation – penance and redemption. We do not discard people who have committed crimes. We do not abandon them.”
During debate on the First Step bill in the Senate, Blumenthal told the story of Reginald Dwayne Betts as an example of the benefits of rehabilitation. Betts is a Connecticut resident who graduated from Yale Law School and is now an attorney.
But when Betts was 16, he and other youths stole a car. Betts was armed and served nine years in prison for his crime. During that time, Betts learned Spanish and studied the law. When he was released, he graduated from the University of Maryland with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in fine arts and poetry before attending Yale Law School.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, also applauded passage of the bill, but said there’s more work to be done.
“As the title of the bill indicates, this piece of legislation is not a solution to all the challenges we face in our justice, court and penal systems, but a starting point to address some of the most grievous injustices,” Courtney said. “There are still institutional biases that disproportionately affect minority groups and we must continue to fight to address those and ensure that justice in our country is applied equally to all.”
The First Step Act lowers the mandatory minimum sentences for prior drug felonies. Drug offenders with three convictions – or “three strikes” – could face 25 years in prison instead of life.
The First Step bill would also give federal judges leeway in sentencing certain drug offenders.
For example, the bill allows about 2,600 prisoners serving who were sentenced before August of 2010 to petition a judge for a reduced penalty.
The First Step Act would also expand job training and other programs for federal inmates and allows them to earn seven days of credit for good behavior each year of his or her sentence with this bill, so a prisoner earning the maximum credits would cut 35 days off a five-year sentence.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the early release of prisoners could save the federal government $414 million over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
One of Malloy’s prison reforms allowed Connecticut inmates to cut much more time – five days a month – from their sentences for good behavior, but those convicted of certain violent crimes are ineligible for the program.
Gov.-elect Ned Lamont this week said he’s willing to continue Malloy’s criminal justice reforms, but did not say what steps he’d take.
“This mass incarceration is a terrible experiment at people’s expense,” Lamont said. “People are getting a second chance, crime is at historic lows, saving the taxpayers an awful lot of money.”
Criminal justice advocates in Connecticut are pressing for new steps, including giving parolees and even inmates the right to vote and making it illegal to discriminate against those with criminal records.